It’s go time for B1G’s CFP contenders, and they need to impress right out of the gate
There’s no time to waste for the Big Ten.
That’s just the reality of the situation. It’s already Week 8, and the B1G has yet to play a game. I know that we like to say that in college football, every game matters — and they do — but a team typically has time to recover from an off game early on. Think Ohio State in 2014 when it lost to an unranked Virginia Tech team at home in Week 2 but won 13 straight after that to win the national championship.
But this season, due to the pandemic and short-time frame the B1G has to complete its season, there may not be time to recover from an early poor performance. This season is best viewed as a sprint, with possible mini breaks in between. And for the B1G’s College Football Playoff contenders, the sprint begins this weekend.
Since it is getting off to such a late start, there is no margin for error for the Big Ten. The league is trying to cram 9 games into 9 weeks (8 games plus the first-ever Champions Week), so there is a very real possibility that some teams won’t play 9 games. Actually, it would be surprising if there weren’t a few cancellations, and that’s OK. Every conference has had a few so far — the SEC, for example, has played 26 of a possible 28 games — so why would the B1G be the exception?
The B1G’s problem is that these other leagues started early enough that they have time to make up canceled games if they want. If there is a canceled game, the B1G won’t be able to make it up.
The tricky part with COVID-19 outbreaks is that they can potentially wreck multiple weeks. The Big Ten has adopted stringent protocols for any athlete who tests positive. The league requires the athlete to receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university for the primary purpose of cardiac clearance for COVID-19 positive student-athletes. The earliest an athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a positive test.
If enough players test positive, that can set a team back multiple weeks. That could be a disaster when the CFP Committee starts comparing résumés. If Penn State or Wisconsin is in contention for a CFP spot, going 8-1 looks a whole lot better than 5-1.
I didn’t include Ohio State in that example because I think it’s possible the Buckeyes are immune to a certain extent. If Ohio State is undefeated or has 1 loss and has been as good as it is on paper, the CFP Committee will probably give the Buckeyes the benefit of the doubt, regardless of how many games they’ve played. That’s what happens when you have Justin Fields and a No. 2 preseason ranking. But the rest of the league’s contenders — Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa — won’t get the same benefit of the doubt.
It would also be helpful for the B1G’s contenders to pass the all-important eye test since they have fewer chances to impress the committee. It would be best to avoid a game like No. 3 Notre Dame had Saturday when it beat a 1-4 Louisville team 12-7 at home.
The good news for the B1G is that a lot of things have broken right for the conference so far. For one, the Pac-12 will be in a similar situation when it begins Nov. 7, except those teams can play a maximum of 7 games. And the Big 12, well, let’s just say the B1G is undoubtedly hoping to avoid the chaos that has already ensued in the Big 12. Texas and Oklahoma, the league’s premier programs, are 2-2, and Iowa State and Kansas State lost to Sun Belt teams in their lone nonconference game. Yikes. The ACC is still just Clemson, and Alabama is the SEC’s only unbeaten team left after 4 weeks.
While the Big Ten has made plenty of mistakes through the pandemic, one of its smartest moves was adding the Champions Week at the end of the season, as it allows an extra game for all the teams not in the Big Ten Championship game. The No. 2 team in the East will play the No. 2 team in the West, the No. 3 team in the East will play the No. 3 team in the West, and on and on. That means it gives a potential borderline CFP team another chance for a quality win to boost its résumé. The Big Ten should seriously consider keeping something like that in place moving forward.
In the short term, however, the Big Ten needs to get off to a great start this weekend, as it provides the best chance for a leap in the polls before it eventually settles in.
A dud in Week 1 or Week 2 isn’t a death sentence, but it means a lot more now than it did in 2014.